CI: Imagination, at the Intersections

January 01, 2014 at 6:56 pm by: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Arts and Culture, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Education, Intersectionality, LGBTQ, Poverty, Prison Industrial Complex, Prisoner Rights, What People are Doing to Change the World

Print Friendly

Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

Imagination, at the Intersections
by nancy a heitzeg (h/t Kay Whitlock and Angela Y. Davis)

“This is what we need most in America — truly the entire world — today. Imagination. Religious scholar Walter Brueggemann has called it “Prophetic Imagination.” We need individuals who will not only occupy our streets, but also occupy our future. Brave soldiers of love who are crazy enough to dream of a world with no more war, no more violence, no more oppression based on the way people look, where they are from, or the way they were born.”

~ Charles Howard, Angela Davis: Power to the Imagination

It is 2014. Criminal InJustice is approaching the start of its fourth year of weekly publishing. Much remains unchanged. The US remains the world’s leader in incarceration. Racial disparities in school suspensions/expulsions, stop/frisk, arrest and imprisonment remain. Privatization and profiteering continues apace, with new alliances between old enemies and expansion opportunities in the field of “community corrections” growing. The courts failed us yet again with the gutting of the Voting Rights Act and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, just two examples among many. Perhaps the best overview is just here in the aptly titled 15 Things That We Re-Learned About the Prison Industrial Complex in 2013.

While the past year has brought some slim signs of progress in dismantling the prison industrial complex and its’ feeder – the school to prison pipeline, they are both small and slow. And not enough. Nazgol Ghandnoosh and Marc Mauer, of The Sentencing Project ask this question:

“Can We Wait 88 Years to End Mass Incarceration?”

“We hear less ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric and budget-conscious conservatives are embracing sentencing reforms. The Attorney General has criticized aspects of the criminal justice system and directed federal prosecutors to seek reduced sanctions against lower-level offenders.

In light of this, one would think we should celebrate the new figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) showing a decline in the U.S. prison population for the third consecutive year. This follows rising prisoner counts for every year between 1973 and 2010. BJS reports that 28 states reduced their prison populations in 2012, contributing to a national reduction of 29,000.Beset by budget constraints and a growing concern for effective approaches to public safety, state policymakers have begun downsizing unsustainable institutional populations. The break in the prison population’s unremitting growth offers an overdue reprieve and a cause for hope for sustained reversal of the nearly four-decade growth pattern.

But the population in federal prisons has yet to decline. And even among the states, the trend is not uniformly or unreservedly positive. Most states that trimmed their prison populations in 2012 did so by small amounts — eight registered declines of less than 1 percent. Further, over half of the 2012 prison count reduction comes from the 10 percent decline in California’s prison population, required by a Supreme Court mandate.

Given recent policy changes, why has there been such a small reduction in the number of people held in prisons? First, many sentencing reforms have understandably focused on low-level offenders.But most significantly, policymakers have neglected the bulk of those who are in state prisons: an aging population convicted of violent crimes or repeat offenses.

Certainly the changing climate, new policies, and recent prisoner counts offer reason for encouragement. But unless we want to wait 88 years to achieve a sensible prison population, we need to accelerate the scale of reform.”

We don’t have time to wait. Throughout our existence, we at CI have tried to illuminate the issue with data, statistics, the cold facts, and yes stories too, to  illustrate, increase the awareness needed as a foundation for change. This is no longer enough either. We know what the issues are. As co-editor Kay Whitlock has long argued, what we need to do is to imagine – dream a bolder vision.

And so we will. At the intersections.

Intersecting Oppressions

At the heart, the prison industrial complex is the epitome of oppression, a literal and conceptual space where deep fear finds expression in unspeakable institutional repression. Our resistance must acknowledge the systemic nature of structured inequality and the deep connections between classism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, speciesism, anthropocentrism. All of these forms of domination and “othering” are connected in the prison industrial complex. It has become the repository, the hegemonic centerpiece where all oppressions meet.

Louisiana State Correctional Facility for Women, 2013

Louisiana State Correctional Facility for Women, 2013

While much scholarship and activism focuses on specific issues facing specific oppressed groups, perhaps it useful to examine the common threads that both characterize and link by common features. The work of Kimberle Creshaw, Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence A gainst Women of Color is foundational here. So too is Iris  Marion Young’s Five Faces of Oppression , which gives us a further framework for delineating the common elements of oppression.

“Oppression refers to systemic constraints on groups that are not necessarily the intentions of a tyrant. Oppression in this sense is structural, rather than the result of a few people’s choices or policies. Its causes are embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following these rules…Oppression refers to the vast and deep injustices that some groups suffer as a consequence of often unconscious assumptions and reactions of well-meaning people in ordinary interactions, media and cultural stereotypes, and structural features of bureaucratic hierarchies and market mechanisms – in short, the normal processes of everyday life. ” (Young 1990 p 43)

Oppression is a collective, not just individual, concern; oppression involves the systematic domination and exclusion of groups via exploitation, marginalization, powerless, cultural domination and violence . Oppression names some groups as “Other”, and systematically disadvantages them while privileging the groups that they are not. Systemic and institutionalized classism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, speciesism, anthropocentrism are pervasive and persistent systems of oppression. While each operates as a particular system of oppression, each also intersects with other systems to create what Hill- Collins terms a “matrix of domination”, that is, oppressions are systemically connected and multiplicative in effect. And, these oppressions, each and all, are perpetuated – not necessarily by the intentions of individuals – but by the reproduction of structures of power, privilege and domination. All types of oppression share common elements and oppressed groups are subject to the following types of treatment:


“Oppression occurs through a steady process of transfer of the result of the labor of one [social] group to benefit another… the energies of the have-nots are continuously expended to maintain and augment the power, status, and  wealth of the haves…”


“Marginalization is perhaps the most dangerous form of oppression. A whole category [of people] is expelled from useful social participation and thus potentially subjected to severe material deprivation and even extermination..”


“Domination in modern society is enacted through the widely dispersed powers of many agents mediating the decisions of others; … The powerless are those who lack authority in even this mediated sense, those over whom power is exercised without their consent; the powerless are situated so that they must take orders and rarely have the right to give them…”


“Cultural imperialism involves the universalization of the dominant group’s experience and culture, and its establishment as the norm…Given the normality of its own cultural expressions and identity, the dominant group constructs the differences which some groups exhibit as lack and negation. These groups become marked as Other….”


“Many groups suffer the oppression of systemic violence…Violence is systemic because it is directed at members of a group simply because they are members of that group… Violence is a social practice…Group-directed violence is institutionalized and systemic. To the degree that institutions and social practices encourage, tolerate, or enable the perpetration of this violence, these institutions and practices are unjust and should be reformed.”

Certainly these “faces” of oppression characterize the contemporary prison industrial complex – the exploitation of neo-slave inmate labor and the profiteering from incarcerated bodies; marginalization to the extreme of disappearance and extermination; complete powerlessness in the face of total institutional control; the cultural hegemony that demonizes and degrades so-called “criminals”; and the structural and interpersonal violence perpetrated by failed institutions and meted out daily by police and other official agents of social control.

Pelican Bay SHU, 2013

Pelican Bay SHU, 2013

And too, the prison industrial complex is the place where all the “isms” collide, where classism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism are re-inscribed via the selection of  the client pool destined to be criminalized. Where speciesism and anthropocentrism provide the paradigm for commodification and caging.

Imagining the Intersections

An intersectional analysis reveals that we all share the same work. If you resist one oppression, you must resist them all. And if you resist them all, then you must resist too their expression in the prison industrial complex. It is often easy for movements to be caught up in internecine battles over focus, priorities, language and turf. Let’s not in 2014. Let’s say that this is all our turf, let’s say that this is all our work, with the knowledge that whatever our particular focus and passion, work at any intersection is work against the structure that upholds them all.

Doing that requires Imagination. First, the imagination to see the connections. You’ve got to the have the vision of the larger work. Last summer, i presented at the 12th Annual North American Conference for Critical Animal Studies, my focus, the connections between speciesism and the pic. It is the foundational ground from which I proceed, always and now. I had the honor of meeting pattrice jones, author of Aftershock and founding member of Vine Sanctuary. Her words on intersectionality offer insights into this imagination. (Links in text are my additions by way of offering resources for this exercise)

Preparing to Work Intersectionally

Every new tool requires some practice to use. This is particularly true for intersectionality, which requires us to see patterns, recognize relationships, and analyze complex interactions among multiple variables. Those of us who were schooled in the U.S. or Europe have been trained to think in exactly the opposite direction and thus may need to make an affirmative effort to learn to think in terms of commonalities rather than distinctions, context rather than abstraction, and systems rather than individuals.

Here are some simple exercises you can do:

  • Think of two forms of oppression, such as sexism and speciesism, and challenge yourself to come up with ways that they intersect.
  • Think of a problem, such as prisons or zoos, and challenge yourself to identify how many different forms of oppression intersect in it.
  • Think of a tactic of oppression, such as stereotyping or forced labor, and challenge yourself to identify the ways that this is deployed in different forms of oppression.
  • Think of a goal of oppression, such as profiteering or control of reproduction, and challenge yourself to see how this is sought by means of different forms of oppression.

Then Imagine too all the actions you can take, Make Art. Make Music. Dream us the way forward.  Organize like Chicago. Imagine Peace “in the shadow of the police state.” Imagine Transformative Justice.

Find your Own Way.

Stand Your Own Ground.

Never look back.




Yes, perfect.

Great way to start the new year - thank you Nancy, as always.

Bob Phillips
Bob Phillips

A "bold" 2014 indeed, Kay! I was just sitting here, wanting to extend greetings to you and Nancy for the New Year, just not feeling it for the traditional "Happy" stuff. Happy it ain't, or likely to be. But bold, yes, that's good, maybe even "audacious!"

My feeling is that neither of you will have difficulty embodying that, so, a bold and audacious New Year to you both!


Thanks, Nancy.  It's hard not to be almost entirely reactive to the never-ending onslaught of political viciousness and systemic racism that characterize the present moment.  But we must break free of the cycle of reactivity, and it will require the boldest, most disruptive forms of imagination we have to do so.  Movement building and grassroots organizing are essential, and bold imagination can help to fuel them.

And thank you for making the links between the earth, the ecologies, the intersections at the level of species.  Essential.

Here's to a bold 2014.

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg moderator

@Bob Phillips Thank you Bob! :) Audacious it will be.. Here is to more of that in Bold Bad 2014. 

Great to see you as always comrade.